Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Medicine for Broken Hearts {Part 1}

He healeth those that are broken in heart
and giveth medicine to heal their sickness
(Ps 147:3, Prayer Book Version).

What kind of medicine heals a broken heart? A broken body, in many cases, can be diagnosed conclusively and treated accordingly by a trained physician. But a broken heart? This proves much more elusive; we may escape into fantasy or try to fill our hearts by filling our flesh (or our schedules). Psychology alone can only patch up the problem, often masking its spiritual core. True medicine comes from God alone and uniquely fits each heart.

Broken hearts are as diverse as their possessors. Only the God who wove us each together in our mothers’ wombs proves a Physician great enough to give the medicine to heal them. He Himself knows the pain of a broken heart, having experienced it with and for us in the person of Christ. Moreover, He knows our sickness. Before we even tell Him what’s wrong (or even if we don’t know ourselves), He knows our sickness and what medicine we need. (What a contrast with human physicians’ dependence on the patient at least to communicate why they’re consulting a doctor; they expect something more than, “It hurts. I don’t know where and can’t say how, but something’s not right.”) With God, though, we have only to come in our pain, wordless and tearful though we may be. He knows, and when He heals us He heals the whole person, body and soul alike.

Even physical illness afflicts the heart as well as body. Jesus’ healing ministry demonstrates and responds to this. While certain patterns recur, His healings are marvelously diverse as He treats individuals with full understanding and respect for their personal needs.

Consider, for example, the leper Mark presents as one of the first healing miracles in his gospel account (Mk 1:40-5). A leper’s suffering in Israel, like an AIDS or Ebola patient today, was as much psychosocial as physical. Outcasts, lepers lived outside the camp, ostracized not only from normal community interaction but also from the religious life of Israel. More than just “ill” or “contagious,” they were “unclean,” perhaps the most shameful label that could be given in that culture. The law prescribed the following behavior for lepers: “As for the diseased person who has the infection, his garments must be torn, the hair of his head must be unbound, he must cover his mustache, and he must call out 'Unclean! Unclean!' The whole time he has the infection he will be continually unclean. He must live in isolation, and his place of residence must be outside the camp” (Lev 13:45-6, NET).

Thus, in this miracle the leper approaches Jesus not requesting healing per se, but to be “made clean,” those words bearing the full meaning of social and ritual reinstatement, freedom from the shame and loneliness he had borne for the duration of his illness. Notice he doesn’t even dare ask outright at all, but comes as a beggar: “If You are willing, You can. . . .” Jesus responds in kind, with full understanding of the man’s import. He reaches out and touches this man, this unclean man, who perhaps had been so long untouchable that he had forgotten the feel of a gentle hand, though he would never cease yearning for it. Jesus’ other miracles leave no doubt that He could heal with a mere word, even if the patient was far away. But this man He touches, because that was the medicine to heal his shame and loneliness.

Even human touch holds tremendous power to comfort. My memory of the first touch – a hand on my shoulder – after the news of my maternal grandmother’s death when I was away at college remains vivid even after 25 years have elapsed. In a later time of brokenness, one of God’s greatest healing gifts was a job caring for an infant, spending hours each day with this tiny, dependent life in my arms. The comfort of Jesus’ own divine-human touch exceeds my comprehension! May we be generous with each other in sharing His love this way.

Similarly, consider the woman suffering from a hemorrhage (Mk 5:25-34), like leprosy an isolating, shameful, “unclean” sort of illness for an Israelite (Lev 15:25-30). Even today any woman knows the embarrassment of gynecological medical problems as opposed to others. In Palestine, though, the stigma was far greater and the fact of illness more public, as the woman carried a moral obligation to protect others from contamination from touching her bed or seat. Therefore, ashamed, this woman approaches Jesus in the anonymity of a crowd, afraid of yet one more disappointment. After 12 years of illness, penniless from doctors who only exacerbated her condition, Jesus was truly her last hope. If she came openly He might turn her away with a rebuke, and that would be too much to bear. So she creeps up behind Him and touches just the edge of His cloak.

Healed physically from that moment even in secrecy, she cannot remain anonymous with Jesus. To the dismay of His disciples, He seeks out this lamb – even now shaking with fear – and publicly reinstates her to the community. “Go in peace,” shalom in the Hebrew tongue, wholeness and freedom from the fear and shame which so long had bound her.

Our God can, will, and does heal the whole person, the broken heart as well as the broken body. In the Gospels, we see multiple instances of Jesus removing not only the sickness or oppression but also the social alienation it causes. “He healeth the broken in heart, and giveth medicine to heal their sickness.”

Administrative note: E-mail subscribers, if you couldn't see yesterday's video, you may view it on the Web at "A New Leash on Life."

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